The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams utilizes a variety of symbols in the character development of Laura.
This symbolism makes Laura out to be a very fragile, shy, and emotionally crippled girl. The dominant symbols that describe Laura include the fire escape, the glass menagerie, the unicorn, and rainbows. All these symbols serve to reveal deeper aspects of Laura and her relationship with the outside world.
One recurrent symbol presented in the story is the fire escape. “For Laura, the fire escape is where the gentleman caller enters and where the outside world is brought inside to her.” (Kohn, 2)
It is also, however, a path to the safe world inside, a world in which she can hide. It is symbolic that Laura does not want to open the door when Jim arrives. “It shows her reluctance to let an emissary from the world of reality, symbolized by Jim, invade the comfortable non-existence of the apartment, and her insecurity in dealing with the outside world.” (Daire, 1) Especially symbolic is Laura's fall after leaving the security of the apartment to do a chore for her mother. “This fall symbolizes Laura's inability to function in society and the outside world.” (Kohn, 1) It further shows Laura's frailty and innocence. As proven by the play's title, William's uses Laura's glass menagerie as an important symbol to represent her sensitive nature and fragility. Laura does not want to become involved with the world outside her apartment. “She prefers the comfort of her home and of her glass animals.” (Kohn, 1)Laura chooses to spend her time with her tiny glass animals, and she treasures them more than actually participating in daily contact with other people. “She is very innocent, very much like the glass she polishes and looks at.” (1) “Even though it is very fragile, the glass shines, producing a multitude of colors in the light.” (2) This is much like Laura herself. “The most prominent use of the symbolic glass menagerie comes at the turning point of the story when Jim is left alone with Laura.” (Daire, 3) The conversation turns to Laura's glass collection, when she remarks “glass is something you have to take good care of.” Once again, Laura's fragility is shown and the symbolism of the unicorn is presented. The most dominant symbol of Laura in the play is the glass unicorn. “It is evident after the conversation between Laura and Jim that the unicorn represents Laura - delicate, sadly different, an anomaly in the modern world.”(Daire, 2) “Jim says “poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome” to which Laura replies “he stays on a shelf with some horses that don't have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together.” (2) During Laura's and Jim's brief romantic encounter, Laura is gaining more confidence in herself. It seems as if she is starting to escape her world of illusions. When Jim accidentally bumps into the glass unicorn and breaks it, the unicorn no longer looks unique. Laura, who usually worships her glass collection more than anything, else, replied to his excuse, “He's lost his horn. It doesn't matter. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise.” And “I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones who don't have horns…” These quotes give an impression that Laura is finally escaping her illusive world. “Laura feels more accepted and less self-conscious. She begins to open up and glow. Jim notices this and takes advantage of it by dancing with her, and eventually kissing her.” (Kohn, 3) Part of the innocence Laura has lost is symbolized in the breaking of the unicorn. When Jim tells Laura of his engagement she is heartbroken. “She no longer feels that uniqueness she once shared with the unicorn. Therefore when she gives the unicorn to Jim, she is giving him her broken heart.” (Kohn, 4) She gives him something of hers to take with him when he leaves and, in a way, he has left something with her. He has left her with shattered hopes and dreams. It is clear at this point that Laura and her glass menagerie break when they both become exposed to the outside world, represented by Jim. “The ever-fragile Laura, temporarily drawn out of her dream-world shell of her glass collection, draws further back into herself.” (4)
Finally, the symbol of rainbows is used throughout the story, but is less prominent and obvious than those of the fire escape or glass menagerie. The rainbows signify the hope in the future. In relevance to Laura, “Tom exhilarates her when he pulls out the rainbow-colored scarf and tells how the magician changed a bowl of goldfish into canaries.” (Kohn, 2)
In addition, at the end when Tom looks at the “pieces of colored glass, like bits of a shattered rainbow,” he remembers Laura and hopes that “he can blow her candles out.” He sees the rainbow-colored glass and remembers how his sister would protect her glass animals. There is great irony tied up in this symbol, in that although rainbows seem to be positive signs, they all end in disappointment. Tennessee Williams uses a wide range of symbolic aspects to develop Laura. It is this symbolism that tells the reader of Laura's hidden “secrets.” Laura, or blue roses as Jim nicknamed her, is fragile, shy and innocent. Like a blue rose, which suggests a phenomenon contrary to nature, Laura is sadly different. (Interestingly enough, blue also means sad.) She is a character that is defined not only by her actions but primarily by the symbolism surrounding her.
The glass menagerie, the fire escape, the unicorn and rainbows give the reader a greater understanding of Laura's character and make “The Glass Menagerie” a powerful American classic.
Daire, Steven. Symbolism in the Glass Menagerie. 5 Dec. 1996. 29 Nov. 1999.
Kohn, Sven. Laura: The Glass Menagerie. 12 March 1997. 29 Nov. 1999.